Nov 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' tattered coattails

Kate Brown, Gavin Newsom and Kathy Hochul
From left: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. Photos: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg; Jerod Harris/Vox Media; Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With a week to go before the midterm elections, some Democratic operatives working on House races are already beginning to assign blame in the event their party loses winnable seats: The culprit, they say, is blue-state governors dragging down the rest of the ballot.

Driving the news: Cook Political Report shifted its ratings in favor of Republicans today in ten House districts — all in states President Biden won by 15 points or more in 2020.

  • The districts are in New York (three), California (three), Illinois (two), New Jersey (one) and Oregon (one).
  • Some of those seats, like New York's 25th District and California's 26th, are in deep-blue territory but have attracted spending from both parties in recent weeks.

What we're hearing: "There is a direct correlation between the performance of [New York Gov.] Kathy Hochul and [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom and the effect it’s having on House candidates," a Democratic strategist working on House campaigns told Axios.

  • "I think Republicans are noticing this too, especially in New York. They’re not even running ads anymore with Pelosi and Biden. They’re running ads with Kathy Hochul," the strategist added. "Unless Hochul and Newsom pick it up, we’re going to lose House seats."
  • Newsom has been criticized for focusing more on his national aspirations than his safe California re-election, including by picking fights with the Republican governors of Florida and Texas.
  • The strategist also cited Oregon Gov. Kate Brown — who Morning Consult polling suggests is the nation's most unpopular governor — as another drag on the ticket in a state where Democrats have had acute difficulties.

Zoom in: Hochul's campaign has come under particular scrutiny as polls show her leading GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin by single digits in a state Democrats routinely win by wide margins. Strategists say her apparent unpreparedness for a highly competitive campaign has had a clear down-ballot effect.

  • "I think that they were caught flat-footed. Everyone I talk to, they're like what the f*ck is going on?" a New York-based Democratic strategist working on House campaigns told Axios, calling her an "absentee candidate" until recent signs of her vulnerability emerged.
  • Another New York-based Democratic strategist said Hochul's "lackluster" campaign is "dragging everyone down."
  • "Instead of nuking Zeldin earlier in the summer ... they let him hang around and define himself and the race and now candidates up and down are dealing with the consequences," the strategist said.

What they're saying: Alyssa Cass, the communications director for Rep. Pat Ryan's (D-N.Y.) campaign, said Hochul, who hails from Buffalo, has done well in upstate districts like Ryan's, but "you can’t take your eye off the ball when it comes to turning out the base in New York City — especially this year."

  • "Republicans are looking stronger than we’re used to seeing them look in places like New York state and even New York City," Cass said, calling for Hochul to do more to energize base voters there.

The other side: Hochul’s campaign pointed to a memo from last week that showed the governor has done more than 65 campaign events during the general election, 47 of which were in September and October.

  • A New York-based strategist not affiliated with Hochul's campaign said it's "100% wrong" to blame her for New York House Democrats' vulnerability, telling Axios: "She is spending a king's ransom to help people, and I don't quite know what else she would've done."
  • The strategist laid the blame solely on a disastrous redistricting process, in which Democrats' attempt to pack Republicans into a handful of seats backfired when a judge blocked the map and appointed a mapmaker who drew far more competitive district lines.
  • "They were so greedy in the redistricting and were so egregious in violating the Constitution the court had to throw the lines out and now we have these un-gerrymandered lines."

A spokesman for Newsom responded to Axios' request for comment by sending a screenshot of the California governor's commanding lead in FiveThirtyEight's polling average.

  • A spokesperson for Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
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